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Let's say I'd like to run a campaign inspired by David Lynch's Twin Peaks, and would like to learn a bit about the everyday life of such towns outside what's been presented on the show - as a first step, by getting to know what people do for a living in such areas.

Is there a list of (usual) occupations for small northern US towns (like Twin Peaks) that I could familiarize myself with (and build NPCs on)? (For extra kudos, any recommended literature? (Preferably fiction or rpg sourcebooks.))

(I'd use either Call of Cthulhu or nWoD.)

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One of the dominant motifs of Twin Peaks (and many of David Lynch's films) is something amiss underneath a wholesome, Americana exterior. Some great fiction in that vein: White Noise, American Pastoral, The Crying of Lot 49, Lolita. Not directly related to the question of small-town occupations, but may be inspirational. – michaelmichael May 9 '11 at 15:48
You may be going for something less bleak, but I'd check out the film (or book) Winter's Bone- you get a good vibe for small towns and very poor residents. (Plus Meth cooking, which is a classic in small town America) – Rain May 9 '11 at 21:19
up vote 8 down vote accepted

Most every small town has a lawman or three... Sometimes local, sometimes state level.

Most small towns will have a doctor and a nurse or two... often inept at major medical issues, but very competent on colds, flu, childhood diseases, sinus infections, and broken bones. A dentist, a dental assistant (possibly trained by the doc rather than formal education), and a receptionist. An optometrist or opthamologist, or one of each, and a couple technicians (again, likely trained by the doc), and a receptionist.

There will be a grocer of some kind... often with a couple of stockers and/or sales clerks, likely part time. Stockers are likely high school students.

There will be a dry goods store, as well, likely similarly staffed to the grocer.

There might be a couple bars, and a restaurant or two. There's an outside chance that there might be a bunch of small bars, each serving a dozen or so regulars.

There's likely to be an auto shop with a mechanic or two, and often, they work a gas station, too, so 2-3 sales clerks, too.

The town post office likely has 3 people; one clerk, and one delivery man, and the station postmaster, who is the relief for both.

Odds are good that there is a small engine repair shop, a shoe repair shop, a watch and clock repair shop. And if there's a shop, it's likely someone owns a tow truck, and drives it; often a mechanic.

There's likely to be a two man garbage truck or two.

Any town over 500 people likely has a small hotel or motel. Staff of 1-4 people, and 5-15 rooms.

If the town's big enough (5k or so), there's likely to be a taxi cab company with 3-5 cars. One will be staffed evening and night, the others staffed in day and evening shifts. Don't expect to have a car available after 2am or before 6am...

If tourists come through regularly, expect a dozen tourist stores, and a couple extra restaurants, plus a couple more hotels. Possibly also some park rangers.

Coffee shops depend a lot on the local attitudes towards bars... If there's a restaurant, odds are there's a bar at one, and it serves as a coffee shop; if booze is unlawful, expect a couple more coffee shops, some of which are also snack bars and others restaurants.

Schools will have about 1 employee per 300 people, and that's likely to be 25-30 students.

There will usually be one or two taxidermists, and a gun shop.

The majority of people will be working in the towns primary industry... odds are one of farming, fishing, woodcutting, or some small manufacturing industry.

I'm basing this on a mixture of Alsea & Philomath, OR, Seward, Girdwood, Eagle River, Palmer, Wasilla, Indian, Moose Pass, Seward, North Pole, and Talkeetna, Alaska.

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Excellent answer. I'd just add tow truck driver (who is often also a mechanic), snow plow driver (who may be a tow truck driver/mechanic in the warmer months), wildfire fighter (usually different folks from your standard municipal fire fighters), and any game wardens or park rangers that may based out of that location. – C. Edwards Jun 2 '11 at 7:57
Snow Plow driver is often non-extant in small towns, as people get a tax break for having and using their plows on the roads. Smokejumpers are seldom locals; they are brought in, often from the cities across the country. And, at least in Alaska, there are no such things as Game Wardens (Fish and Game eforcement are state troopers), and usually, the park rangers are based in the parks, quite literally living there part time, and in the city on their off time. May be different down south... – aramis Jun 2 '11 at 19:48
I was referring to places I've actually been, mostly in Washington state. Game Warden I used as a generic term as it differs from state to state. Your experience is maybe not all-inclusive? – C. Edwards Jun 2 '11 at 20:55

If you looking for something pretty specific. Census information would work the best. I'm sure there would be a little interpretation needed. But here is 2000 Census on Occupational information. There are divisions by region, including but not limited to Midwest.

* Some of the best rpg source content can come from real numbers.

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this is also an excellent answer (I've received only great ones here for this Q, fortunately), it's a pity we can't accept more than one. :-o thank you! – OpaCitiZen May 12 '11 at 19:43

If it will be in the Northwest US, there are a large number of logging or sawmill towns.

There are also grain mill towns, mining towns, etc. I'd just pick a blue-collar occupation and make that the foundation of the city. Look at most of these small towns (and even cities like Detroit) you are either employed in the main industry/employer, or a "support" job for that industry/employer.

For example: Rochester, NY has Kodak and IBM's corporate headquarters. People tend to work for those 2 employers, or the doctors/restaurants/stores that SERVE those 2 employers. Detroit is the same, only it's with the US Auto industry.

Personally, I'd just pick either a factory, or some other work facility that is appropriate to the ambiance to your game, and build up from there. If you want to run a Werewolf chronicle that focuses on loss of habitat, make it a sawmill town or a lumber town. Want a town that is slowly dying? Maybe a Uranium Mining town.

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Look at D6 Adventure Locations (which is now freely available). The book is a list of common modern locations with things to see, people to meet (with some stats) and minor typical plot hooks for each location. Some examples are Convenience Store, Forest/Meadow, Park, Restaurunt, etc.

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